James Parsons of Bend thinks Oregon is extreme; so much so that he named his photography company "Extreme Oregon." Parsons is one of many professional photographers making a name for themselves in Central Oregon, where he can conveniently travel the state in search of those special digital moments he shares in his photos. His goal is to travel to every Oregon wilderness and he admits he has a lot to go before he photographs in them all.
We got to know Parsons on one of his outdoor client workshops, heading into the high Cascades searching for photo opportunities. Parsons is also a licensed outdoor guide.
We fired up his two snowmobiles at Mt. Bachelor. Our first stop was Todd Lake for an iconic afternoon view of Mt. Bachelor with the sun moving west. Then we sped off toward Broken Top, snowshoeing into the wilderness where motorized travel is illegal. From there we headed to Sparks Lake for the evening sun. There was a dense fog rising from the lake skirting the base of Mt. Bachelor, providing an eye-catching contrast to the forests and snow covered mountain.
We both set up our tripods and tracked the setting sun, providing hues of pink and orange above the fog and over the mountain. Parsons coached me through aperture settings, shutter speeds and manual focus options. When we arrived at Sparks Lake, it was 32 degrees and late afternoon. When we left an hour later, with frozen fingers and great photos, it was 19 degrees.
Like many Central Oregonians, Parsons is a transplant. He grew up near Santa Barbara, Calif., where he was always interested in outdoor photography. As an adult, he and his wife grew tired of the California rat race and cost of living. They moved to Portland for seven years, discovered Bend on vacations and eventually moved here. Parsons was in the medical supply business but now follows his photography passion full time.
During his time in the Willamette Valley Parsons experienced the dramatic differences in Oregon's climate and geography, and the extreme differences between western and eastern Oregon. "Although this state is known for its greenery and rain, it's actually the minority of what's here. If I were to sum up the state in two words, it would be, 'Extreme Oregon'.
"What made me get serious about photography was when we moved from Portland to Bend and had a bigger house with blank walls in need of photos and art," Parsons said. Sharing an outdoor and hiking interest with his wife, he purchased an entry level DSLR camera and began capturing those experiences, printing them at Costco and "saved a ton of money" decorating his house. "I have several rooms you can't really walk into because there are so many prints just sitting in there," he says.
As a guide, he sees changes—many not beneficial to the outdoor environment of Central Oregon. As Central Oregon's population and tourism continue to grow, he sees it taking a toll on the landscape. At the edge of the Three Sisters Wilderness overlooking Broken Top, he points out illegal snowmobile tracks leading into the wilderness, saying, "There are always some who will break the rules."
"Dramatically, shockingly, from one year to the next in certain places, it feels like the crowds have easily doubled. Central Oregon is on the radar. The economy is good. Tourism is booming. Oregon's been the number one moving destination for three straight years now," he reflects.
Parsons says he makes it a point to not only pack out his own garbage, but that of other people, too. "I take out more trash than I bring in, which is easy to do," he says.
Parsons is also a critic of social media and its impacts on nature. "People want to get the first shot of crossing boundaries where they shouldn't be to show how cool they are that they've stood somewhere— breaking the rules—with a unique picture they can post."
He also feels the social media culture encourages others to break the rules of leaving no trace. "Social media feeds that, especially with younger people where being cool is so important to them." He tells others to not broadcast exact locations of special places he thinks are environmentally vulnerable.
"I don't even think people know what 'leave no trace' means anymore," he says. Parsons says he plays a mental game before he leaves a special place, asking himself if anyone would ever know he was there. Chances are they won't.
James Parson's work can be viewed at extremeoregon.net